April 21, 2024


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Funding the Quiet Good: Gifts That Support the Humanities and Social Sciences | BU Today

Of the $42 billion the federal government spends on research and development each year, less than 5 percent ($1.9 billion) goes to social and behavioral science research. Photos courtesy of iStock, Unsplash, and Wikimedia

  • Under 5 percent of the federal government’s R&D $42 billion goes to social and behavioral science research
  • In 2018, the Consortium of Social Science Associations ranked BU 9th of 530 colleges and universities in social science funding
  • Social scientists have helped Americans save for retirement, stem the spread of Ebola, and identified environmental factors contributing to obesity

When Jack Dorsey, the cofounder and CEO of Twitter and Square, donated $10 million to Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research in mid-August, the gift was remarkable in the world of philanthropy for two reasons: the speed with which it arrived—only six weeks after the BU center opened—and the choice of the beneficiary—an academic center dedicated to research in the humanities.

Put simply, research gifts of that magnitude typically go to cure cancer. They don’t go to improve human behavior.

When it comes to funding for academic research, the humanities and social sciences have long been the poor cousins to traditional sciences like engineering, computer science, and mathematics, and even to nonsciences like business management and law. 

In fiscal 2019, the social sciences accounted for approximately one percent of all research expenditures at Boston University, and the humanities accounted for another one percent. The nonsciences, which include business management, communications, and law, among other areas of study, accounted for 4 percent. Meanwhile, the traditional sciences—computer science, life sciences, and engineering, to name a few—accounted for the remaining 94 percent. 

When money is given to academic centers that focus on research in the humanities and social sciences, like the antiracist center that Ibram X. Kendi, Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of history, launched at BU on July 1, it has the potential to improve the lives of millions of people, and even to change society as we know it. But that work, unlike, say, the study of Alzheimer’s disease or breast cancer or robotics or business management practices, frequently happens with little fanfare. And because societal change might take decades, or even generations, to achieve, it’s difficult for the public to grasp the importance of the work because they might never reap the benefits of it.

But examples of social and behavioral sciences touching lives abound. It was social science research that revealed how the “walkability” of neighborhoods influences obesity rates, which in turn impacts the incidence of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other health outcomes. Psychology and economics research concluded that people are too passive about saving for retirement, a finding that led the federal government to enact the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which encourages employers to adopt automatic enrollment, employer contribution, contribution escalation, and qualified default investment alternative practices. And political science research has mined foreign language data to yield a better understanding of international strife and inform decisions on conflict resolution.

Anthony Petro, a CAS associate professor of religion, a Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program faculty member, and a National Endowment of the Humanities Distinguished Teaching Professor, says humanities research is especially crucial in times like these. “Scientific research helps us save lives,” says Petro. “Research in the humanities asks why we save some lives and not others, shows us how to bring meaning to our lives and to the overwhelming number of lives lost. It teaches us how to imagine better futures.” 

Despite those virtues, social science funding can seem like an afterthought when compared to overall spending by the federal government. Of the $42 billion the federal government spends on research and development each year, less than 5 percent ($1.9 billion) goes to social and behavioral science research. One note on the bright side: Boston University generally garners a fair amount of that money. In FY 2018, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics Higher Education Research and Development Survey, BU came in 9th out of 530 colleges and universities ranked by the Consortium of Social Science Associations in terms of social science funding, which includes combined federal research and development expenditures for social sciences, psychology, law, communications, and social work. 

James Uden, a CAS associate professor of classical studies and a 2019 winner of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, says the humanities help us understand “the how and why of our own culture.” 

“It’s never been more important for us to learn how the actions and ideas of the past have shaped the present, and how to communicate with each other,” says Uden. “We have to train ourselves to do it. That’s where the humanities come in.”

Karl Kirchwey, a CAS professor of English and associate dean of the faculty, humanities, says foundation grant and fellowship support is crucial “in a moment when the work of the humanities—exploring the moral, spiritual, historical, and creative dimensions of living a fully human life—becomes only more relevant to the challenges now confronting us.”

Research in the humanities asks why we save some lives and not others, shows us how to bring meaning to our lives and to the overwhelming number of lives lost. It teaches us how to imagine better futures.

Anthony Petro

Gifts to centers for social science are particularly important because of their potential to use research to make positive, long-lasting changes to the world says Anna Pruitt, managing editor of Giving USA, an annual report on philanthropic giving in the United State. Pruitt knows that potential well. She is also a researcher at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, which was established in 2012 with help from an $8 million bequest from Ruth Lilly, whose great-grandfather founded Eli Lilly and Company.

Previously known as the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the academic center helped Indiana University establish the field of philanthropic studies, which included starting the nation’s first bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees in the field. In 2015, the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy established the Mays Family Institute on Diverse Philanthropy, which seeks to understand the perceptions, practices, and needs of underrepresented communities.

Advancing racial and social justice

When BU Today looked for other examples of private gifts that support social science and humanitarian research with the potential to make our society safer, healthier, and more equitable, we didn’t have to look far or too deep in the past. On August 13, the City University of New York (CUNY) received $10 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to expand several COVID-19–related initiatives and advance social and racial justice. Of that gift, $3 million will support the development of programs in Black, race, and ethnic studies; $2.5 million is earmarked for the Chancellor’s Emergency Relief Fund and will help students who have experienced job losses and other financial setbacks during the pandemic, putting the completion of their degrees in jeopardy; and another $2 million will help expand the CUNY Cultural Corps, which was created in 2016 as a pipeline to careers in New York City arts and arts administration for students from underrepresented communities. Other monies will fund a program called Transformative Learning in the Humanities, which will train humanities faculty in ways to make their classes more participatory, and will bolster the number of humanities course offerings.

Keeping technology honest

Another $10 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a perennial funder of the humanities and social sciences, awarded to the University of California in January 2018, marked the first stage of a $30 million permanent endowment to sustain the core activities of the UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) and the UC Humanities Network, which is intended to advance collaborative, interdisciplinary humanities research and education throughout the UC system. The UCHRI is a nationally known and highly regarded humanities institute that hosts residential fellows and projects and sponsors a system-wide consortium of interconnected campus humanities centers and multicampus research groups that foster interdisciplinary and collaborative research. 

UCHRI’s Horizons of the Humanities initiative explores ways that changes in technology and society shape humanistic inquiry and knowledge. It seeks answers to questions such as how advances in digital technology are shaping our thoughts about what makes us human, and how people adopt disparate identities across public, private, and digital interfaces. The initiative also explores the challenges and opportunities of supercharged cultural, religious, and political differences and the consequences of those differences for democracy.

Gathering intelligence on artificial intelligence

In January 2017, MIT’s Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society jointly received $5.9 million from the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund, which was created with initial support of $27 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and others. The grant designated the two centers as the founding academic institutions of the fund, whose purpose is to help bridge the gap between the humanities, the social sciences, and computing by addressing the global challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) from a multidisciplinary perspective. The fund’s projects address such things as the global governance of AI and the ways the use of AI may reinforce existing biases, particularly against underserved and underrepresented populations.

Since then the Miami Foundation, fiscal sponsor of the fund, has issued dozens of grants for projects aimed at ensuring that AI is used in the public interest. In July 2017, it gave  $7.6 million to nine projects that aim to bolster the voice of civil society in shaping the development of AI in the public interest. One project is investigating questions regarding the safe and ethical use of AI to promote social good in Asia; another is looking at how AI is being developed in Brazil and Latin America. A New York–based project is studying the integration of AI into critical infrastructures, looking specifically at bias, data collection, and healthcare. Others will work with data protection authorities to develop practical guidelines that protect user rights, educate public and private authorities about rights, and conduct case studies on data protection issues relating to algorithms and AI in France and Hungary. 

In 2019, the Miami Foundation funded seven projects, including an initiative to help newsrooms and researchers analyze documents through crowdsourcing and machine learning, an effort to train journalists to produce articles about the impact of technology on low-income communities, and a project aimed at combating misinformation on WhatsApp and other chat apps in India.

Nurturing the humanities for the good of humanity

Sometimes a gift to the humanities is just that: a gift to the humanities. That’s the case with a $10 million gift that the University of Wisconsin received from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2010. The gift to the University’s Strengthening the Core Humanities program, which was matched by the state, has enabled the university to hire new faculty and support postdoctoral and graduate students in the humanities. The university used $2.5 million to create an endowed chair in ancient Greek philosophy, and aimed other monies at two-year fellowships for graduate students who are writing their dissertations.

The promise of gifts at BU

At BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, $9 million of Start Small’s $10 million gift goes to the center’s endowment, and $1 million is available for immediate use, allowing the center to hire staff and fund its first research and policy teams on COVID-19 racial disparities. Start Small’s gift is the second of three significant contributions to the center. In June, it received $1.5 million from the Vertex Foundation, a long-term source of charitable giving and part of the corporate giving commitment of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc. And in October, the Rockefeller Foundation, a global science-driven philanthropy founded more than a century ago, committed $1.5 million to the center over the next two years.

Kendi envisions the center as a place where researchers from many fields, including law, social work, the humanities, computer science, communication, medicine, and public health will collaborate with researchers from other universities, as well as data analysts, journalists, and policy experts. His goal, he says, is to help create racial change, change that “is about creating equity and justice for all, and a human community that values equity and justice for all.”

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